Guide to a Perfect Everglades Weekend Escape

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Crow 911, Flickr

One of the great dualities of Florida is the presence of spectacular natural places and wildlife within easy striking distance of the most people-packed urban areas. And Everglades National Park – covering more than 1.5 million acres in South Florida – is as off-the-charts-wild as U.S. parks get. While the most remote areas of the park are largely inaccessible, there are plenty of spots within a stone’s throw ofMiami and Naples (around the small towns of Florida City and Everglades City) where you can get a real feel for the “River of Grass.”

The Everglades was originally given protected status in 1947 in order to preserve its extreme biodiversity, and the vast sub-tropical wilderness here continues to flourish as a habitat for alligators, Florida panthers, manatees and crocodiles as well as hundreds of species of plants and birds. For one of the wildest Florida escapes, this is the place.

See the full itinerary on MapQuest Discover>>

National Parks Are Fee-Free November 10-12

National Parks Are Fee-Free Next Weekend!America’s national parks will be fee-free once again next weekend as the nation celebrates Veteran’s Day. Beginning Saturday, November 10 and running through Monday, November 12, all parks in the U.S. system will waive any entrance fees for visitors, making this a great opportunity to enjoy the fall weather in some of the most scenic and historic locations in all of North America.

While many of the parks are now past their peak period for enjoying the autumn colors, not all of the leaves are down just yet. Next weekend would make a great time to take a hike in the Great Smokey Mountains or Yosemite for instance, where the seasonal change is still in progress. For those of us who live in the south, the weather has finally cooled off, allowing us to head outside after another long summer. That makes locations such as Big Bend, the Everglades or even the Grand Canyon much more appealing. Even the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park still has 29 miles open for visitors who want to experience that pristine environment ahead of the arrival of winter.

Over the past few years, the fee-free days in the national parks have become incredibly popular with visitors and 2012 has been no exception. The Park Service hasn’t announced their fee-free dates for 2013 just yet, and next weekend is the final opportunity to take advantage of this option for this year. It seems like it’ll be the perfect time to load up the car with friends and family and visit your favorite park or explore a new one.

For a complete list of parks, sorted by state, that will be participating in the fee-free weekend, click here.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]

Alligator Bites Hand Off Everglades Tour Guide

An American AlligatorA group of tourists traveling with Captain Doug’s Everglades Tours got far more excitement than they bargained for earlier this week. The three women and two children set out for an afternoon excursion with airboat captain Wallace Weatherholt hoping to catch a glimpse of an alligator and ended up getting far closer to one of the creatures than they ever imagined.

Around 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Weatherholt stopped the boat in a location where he knew an alligator lurked. He first coaxed the animal out of the water by holding a fish just above the surface, which the 9-foot reptile eagerly snapped out of his hand, before plunging back into the swamp. Moments later the beast resurfaced and attempted to leap onto the boat, nearly tipping it over in the process. Unsuccessful in its attempt to board the small craft, the gator slid back into the water as quickly as it had appeared.

At this point the passengers were thoroughly terrified from the encounter, but Weatherholt decided to take the experience just a bit further. The guide began patting the surface of the water in an attempt to bring the alligator back into view once again. Unfortunately for him the creature was just below the surface and struck very quickly, biting the guide’s hand completely off.

One of the passengers aboard the boat used her cellphone to call 911 and emergency response teams were on the scene very quickly. Members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also responded and they were able to track down the gator. After killing the animal, they were able to retrieve Weatherholt’s hand from its stomach. Doctors later failed in their attempts to reattach the appendage.

To make matters worse for the airboat captain, he now faces possible fines and jail time. In Florida it is illegal to feed alligators and by doing so, Weatherholt could potentially be sentenced to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

[Photo credit: Tomás Castelazo via WikiMedia]

National parks announce fee free days for 2011

2011 will feature more fee free days in America's national parksOver the past few years, it has become a tradition for the National Park Service to waive entry fees into the national parks several times a year. Those fee free days have become extremely popular with frugal travelers, who take advantage of the lack of an entry fee to enjoy some of the best natural wonders that America has to offer.

Earlier this month the Park Service announced their fee free days for 2011, giving us all a number of great opportunities to enjoy “America’s Best Idea” on the cheap. Several of those days, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday weekend, have already slipped by, but here are the remaining fee free days for the year.

• April 16-24 (National Park Week)

• June 21 (First day of summer)

• September 24 (Public Lands Day)

• November 11-13 (Veterans Day weekend)

In all, there are 14 days remaining in 2011 during which you can gain entry into more than 100 national parks for free. To see a complete list of which parks will be waiving their entry fee on those days click here.

Knowing the available dates well in advance allows us to plan ahead and select which parks we would most like to visit during the fee free days. For example, in April many of the parks are still on the cool side, but it is an excellent time to visit Big Bend in Texas, before it becomes too hot. The first day of summer seems the perfect excuse to drop into Denali, located in Alaska, while September is great for visiting Yellowstone. As for November, how about stopping by the Everglades for one last tropical escape before the winter snows start to fly across much of the country.

Whether they’re free or not, the national parks are fantastic destinations all year round. But it never hurts to get something for free!

UNESCO adds Everglades, Madagascar rain forests to endangered list

Yesterday we told you how the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, aka UNESCO, had granted several new sites “World Heritage” status at their recent meeting held in Sao Paulo, Brazil. That same group also moved two other sites to their endangered list in a move that typically serves as a warning about the future health of those locations.

Returning to the endangered list this year is the Florida Everglades, which were first cited back in 1993 and remained on the list until 1997 due to damage sustained during Hurricane Andrew. The sub-tropical wilderness is the largest of its kind in the United States, but is degrading rapidly, thanks to the loss of more than 60% of its water inflow. The committee also noted that increased levels of pollution is causing the water in the Everglades to become toxic, killing, or driving off, large numbers of marine life that once lived in the area as well.

Also added to the endangered list this year are the rain forests of Atsinanana, located in Madagascar. In this case, the World Heritage Committee cited the illegal logging operations that continue to go on there, as well as the hunting of an endangered species of lemurs, as causes for concern for the future of that natural environment.

Being put on the endangered list is not necessarily a bad thing for these World Heritage Sites. In the past, such a designation has brought a great deal of attention and focus to the problems at those locations, allowing governments to clean them up and keep them better protected for future generations to enjoy as well. Hopefully that will be the case in both of these cases as well.

[Photo credit: Moni3 via WikiMedia Commons]